Some problems require a lot of thinking, planning, and practiced execution (small steps to finish lessons on time), but others can be solved with a simple solution borrowed from the talented teachers that came before us.
Discovering the solutions that have already been developed is a matter of paying attention in your own lessons, observing other masterful teachers, and hitting the books to see what other teachers say about their teaching. (These would be some good places to start… Duke, Scott, Kreitman).
But regardless where you get your solutions from, the ones you want to prioritize are the ones I consider “elegant.”
Elegant solutions are simple ones, easily understood by parent and student, that solve several different issues and maintain your values at the same time. An elegant solution is like a drawstring that pulls together disparate folds of cloth while also gathering into a package the contents desired. Elegant solutions, whether in the form of a well turned phrase, a structured game, or a simple exercise bring together entire principles of violin playing while also building multifaceted, long lasting skills.
Elegant solutions are seemingly magical; they are the parts of the lesson that, when you observe another teacher deploy them, that you get goosebumps on your arms, quit taking notes, and admire, with your jaw hanging down, the artistry of teaching.
One such solution, one that I use nearly every day I teach, is the phrase, “Touch your toes to my toes.”
The phrase invites students to bring their feet forward and touch the edge of my shoes with their shoes before moving to play position. I arrange my feet in such a way that they will conform to a perfect play position stance. I also determine with my feet the proximity of our work together; I can draw my feet close to me for very close, detailed work, or put them further away for a better vantage point of their full body performance.
Below I’ll analyze several of the ways this simple phrase, beyond just compelling a student to move from one place to another, is a powerful, elegant solution.
- it bridges the gap from the highly structured foot placement on a foot chart to independent foot placement without a foot chart
- there is an obvious, correct way for the student to place their feet (right next to mine), but many possible routes to that successful solution
- though the phrase is a “command,” it invites the student to come closer to me on their own terms
- I can, with a read on the student, determine how close I want them to be
- it encourages positive physical contact, not corrective, negative contact (in other words, physical contact is the success/the reward, not the means of getting to the correct place)
- it is a phrase parents can use just as effectively as me
- it works well with a student coming from anywhere in the room (no more saying “3 steps forward, oops okay two steps back, oh I meant little steps…”)
- it is a phrase that cues focus and moving on the the next phase of the lesson
- I always ask for toes to touch first before going to play position, this routinizes moving to play position from the ground up (stable balanced body, then violin, then bow)
I’m sure there are more that I will discover throughout time, but I remember thinking that this phrase was genius the first time I saw Ed Sprunger use it while teaching.